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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Four

       Last updated: Sunday, April 3, 2005 15:00 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 44:

    The closer they got to the capital, the more they were slowed on their journey by refugee-laden carriages coming up the road. Fortunately, Crowell’s wagon was a lot more substantial than most of the fancy carriages headed away from Washington, so the evacuees more often made way for him, rather than the other way around. As was generally the case, in Driscol’s experience, only people of means could afford to flee a city that was coming under attack—and people like that typically owned carriages designed for elegance rather than endurance. Pound for pound and horse for horse, they were simply no match for Crowell’s vehicle.

    Had Crowell been alone, of course, he wouldn’t have dared to bully his way through such a flood of gentility. But Driscol didn’t hesitate to use his uniform to indicate his authority—or, for that matter, the threat of McParland’s musket, on the one occasion when an offended party made a vehement protest.

    Halfway to Washington, they even picked up an escort. Several dozen armed and mounted men were milling around outside a roadway tavern, appearing more confused than inebriated.

    Driscol recognized the look of leaderless soldiers. Militiamen of some sort, going by the flamboyant nature of their uniforms. Cavalrymen, presumably, given that some of the men were on horseback, and most of the others had their horses by the reins.

    “And who’re you?” he barked, as soon as the wagon reached them. He stood up, giving them a full view of his uniform and sword, and the lieutenant’s epaulet that sat on his shoulder. If the sight of his left sleeve, tied up just a few inches below the epaulet, detracted from the impression, he could see no sign of it.

    “Answer me, blast you!” he bellowed.

    One of the mounted men—they were all youngsters, most of them still teenagers—gave him a salute that was so awkwardly exaggerated that Driscol almost burst into laughter.

    “I’m Corporal John Pendleton, sir. We’re part of the United Volunteers. From Baltimore. Uh, we’re supposed to be attached to General Tobias Stansbury’s Fifth Regiment, but . . . uh, well.”

    Plaintively, another one of the would-be soldiers piped up: “Do you know where we might find the Fifth Regiment, sir? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of General Stansbury.”

    Driscol snorted. “Threatening to level cannon fire against newspapermen, I should imagine.”

    He made no effort to disguise the contempt in his voice. General Stansbury’s principal claim to fame in the war had been his refusal to protect the antiwar Baltimore newspaper, the Federal Republican and Commercial Intelligencer, when it came under attack at the outset of the conflict, from a prowar mob. When asked for his assistance by the sheriff, Stansbury had proclaimed that the newspaper deserved to be blown up, and that he was rather inclined to level it with his cannons than protect it.

    The fact that, politically speaking, Driscol shared the general’s attitude toward the Federalist newspaper in question was beside the point. He had no more liking for lynch mobs than he did for Sassenach.

    “Ah, yes, Stansbury,” Driscol sneered. “I can well imagine you’re having difficulty finding the fine general, what with an actual armed enemy to face.”

    That bordered on gross insubordination, but he didn’t really care. If there was any advantage to losing an arm, it was that it tended to put everything else into a certain perspective.

    Still, there was no point in letting the youngsters stew on his words. Best to put them to good use.

    “Since you’re unattached, I’m assigning you to my unit. I’m on my way to special duty in Washington.” That sounded better than on medical leave, fleeing a doctor, he thought. “As of this moment, you are attached to General Winfield Scott’s First Brigade.”

    The eyes of all the young cavalrymen went wide. They were more like half-baked dragoons, really; at least two of them were having trouble with their horses. But it didn’t matter. As Driscol had known it would, the name General Winfield Scott served as a talisman. Scott was genuine war hero. Unlike such wretches as Stansbury, the brigadier had won a real battle against British regulars.

    He pointed behind the wagon. “Most of you, take up positions in the rear. You, Pendleton, and you”—he pointed to the other youngster who had spoken up—“ride ahead of us.”

    From then on, they made excellent progress. Not even the most desperate or arrogant refugee would argue passage with a cavalry troop, small though it might be. Certainly not one that rode as confidently as one of General Scott’s units, half-baked teenage dragoons or not.

    They stopped only once, at Driscol’s insistence. The young cavalrymen were all for pressing onward, but Driscol had too much experience to make that mistake.

    “Never go into a battle on an empty stomach, lads. We can spare the few minutes for a late breakfast.”

    Fortunately, there were some smoked hams in the wagon. Fortunately also, most of the youngsters came from well-to-do families living in Baltimore, and could afford to pay Crowell for them. For those few who couldn’t, Driscol borrowed a pen and some notepaper from Pendleton—it seemed the boy was a budding Caesar, who had hopes of recording his exploits for posterity—and solemnly scribbled out “official War Department obligations.” He gave them to Crowell to redeem . . .

    Well, whenever and however. In truth, the notes were probably about as good as Driscol’s well-nigh illegible handwriting.

    “I’m sorry, Henry,” he said softly, “but it’s the best I can do. I just won’t lead men, much less boys, into a fight when they’re getting weak from hunger.”

    “Never you mind, Lieutenant,” murmured Crowell, just as solemnly tucking the notes away in his waistband. “I’ll make out fine. As much as you overcharged the rest of them.”


    Washington was a ghost town.

    Almost all shops and offices were locked and shuttered by the time they arrived, in the sultry heat of midafternoon. The city’s residents were either in flight or hiding in their homes. Before long, they found streets that were full enough, to be sure—but with soldiers, mostly militiamen, in full and furious retreat. Rout, it would be better to say.

    By putting together accounts blurted out by fleeing soldiers, Driscol learned that a battle had already been fought. Just outside the capital, it seemed, at the town of Bladensburg.

    General Winder had led the American forces, and it sounded as if it had been more farce than anything else. Commodore Barney’s regular naval artillerymen and Captain Miller’s marines had given a very good account of themselves, by the reports. But when the militiamen who were supposed to be guarding their flank ran away after firing not more than two ragged volleys, the artillerymen and marines had been overwhelmed.

    For the rest, the less said the better. With uncertain and incompetent officers like Winder leading them, militia forces were about as reliable as rotten wood. At least Beale’s men had put up a bit of a fight before deserting the artillery and marines. The Second and Thirty-sixth Regiments of militia hadn’t even managed that much. The British had unleashed their newfangled and much-feared Congreve rockets, and as soon as they started hissing down like aerial serpents, those regiments had broken and run. Never fired a shot, apparently.

    And General Stansbury? Oh, he’d made a splendid showing, in the beginning—riding up and down the lines loudly proclaiming that he’d have any man who ran away sabered by his officers. Fat lot of good that piece of loudmouthery had done him. When the Congreve rockets started flying, the officers had raced off the field just as fast as the men.

    Driscol was tempted to rub salt in the wounds, but the abashed looks on the faces of his newly acquired dragoons were good enough. General Stansbury was a joke, and there was no pride to be found in being considered part of his regiment.

    Leave it at that. By now it was obvious to Driscol’s experienced eye that the young dragoons had shifted their tacit allegiance over to him. And why not? Their uniforms were too idiosyncratic to register any specific unit identity, and they were volunteers anyway. That being the case, far better to be associated with the name of the hero of Chippewa and his now-legendary First Brigade. Who was to say otherwise? No one, besides Driscol or McParland—and Driscol had no intention of doing so, and McParland would lead where he followed.

    Leading them where, though?

    Once they reached Pennsylvania Avenue, Driscol could no longer evade the question. Even if his little troop had been composed of grizzled veterans from the emperor’s Imperial Guard, they’d be no match for an army of British regulars.

    He didn’t dare hesitate for long, either. Soldiers like the ones who followed him needed a confident commander even more than veteran regulars. Whether he made the right decision or not wasn’t as important as that he made some decision.


    In the end, he was the only one who appreciated the irony. He gave a firm order—

    “To the president’s house!”

    —knowing full well he was just dodging the responsibility. Postponing it, at least. The brick building that housed the War Department stood right next to the president’s mansion. Who was to say? Maybe Driscol would find someone in authority there, who would be able to take charge.

    Besides, he told himself as his little troop began trotting down Pennsylvania Avenue, if nothing else, the sight of the mansion would bolster his soldiers’ morale. The official residence of the nation’s chief executive was one of the very few things about Washington, D.C., that was genuinely impressive.

    Even if, he’d been told, the roof still leaked.


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